ABOVE: (L-R) Heather Wilkie, Andrew Chang and Eric Rollings are among the community leaders helping to ban conversion therapy in Orange County. (Photo by Jeremy Williams)

ORLANDO | A petition calling for the ban of so-called gay conversion therapy for minors in Orange County has been launched on the website Change.org.

The petition, which can be found at ConvertToLove.org, has the support of local, state and national LGBTQ organizations including Equality Florida, Orlando Youth Alliance (OYA), One Orlando Alliance, The Trevor Project and the Zebra Coalition.

The petition—which as of press time has more than 2,500 signatures—was launched by Central Florida LGBTQ activist Andrew Chang. He says that he “angrily typed up the petition” after realizing that conversion therapy was still legal in Orange County.

“I couldn’t believe that it’s still a thing here,” Chang says. “Thankfully the petition had the support of many local LGBTQ organizations.”

Conversion therapy, also called “reparative therapy,” is the practice of trying to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity through the use of psychological or spiritual interventions. The practice is widely discredited by every major medical organization in the U.S.

As the CEO of OYA, the oldest LGBTQ youth organization in Central Florida, Michael Slaymaker says many people assume that conversion therapy isn’t happening anymore since it has been discredited but that is not the case.

“The American Psychiatric Association denounced the practice in 1998. Exodus International, the main driver of the therapy, went defunct in 2013 and apologized for harming LGBT people. But if you think the torturous therapy is gone–you would be wrong. We need to join the other municipalities and pass ordinances to ban this from being practiced on our youth.”

Exodus International was a non-profit, ex-gay Christian umbrella organization that, since its founding in 1976, has asserted that conversion therapy worked. The organization publicly renounced conversion therapy in 2013, stating that not only does it not work but it is actually dangerous and harmful to LGBTQ youth.

“We keep calling it ‘reparative therapy’ or ‘conversion therapy’ but what it really is is child abuse,” says LGBTQ activist and community leader Eric Rollings, who is helping to lead the charge against conversion therapy in Orange County.

The act of conversion therapy has also been condemned by many local and state-level politicians and even members of Orange County’s school board.

“Conversion therapy has been shown to be abusive and damaging to children. It should be illegal,” Orange County District 3 School Board Member Linda Kolbert said in a statement last month. “As a school board member, I am responsible for the success, care and protection of all children. All means ALL.”

One Orlando Alliance Executive Director Jennifer Foster echoed Kolbert’s sentiments in a statement when the petition was first launched.

“The health and welfare of Orange County’s LGBTQ+ youth are a top priority of One Orlando Alliance. Coming out remains one of the most emotionally challenging decisions in a LGBTQ+ person’s life, often leading to rejection and depression,” Foster said. “For many, especially our youth, acceptance is a matter of life or death. In order to realize a safe and inclusive community for all, we must do away with the harmful practice of conversion therapy.”

Horror stories about LGBTQ youth being sent to camps and therapists that use sleep deprivation, starvation and electric shock therapy have come to light in recent years. They have led to suicide rates being eight times higher in those children forced to go through conversion therapy.

“Rates skyrocket when a young person is told that they can’t be who they are or that society will not accept them for who they are,” says Zebra Coalition Executive Director Heather Wilkie. “There are higher rates of depression and anxiety in LGBTQ adults who received reparative therapy in their youth.”

These higher rates of suicide and mental health issues have led 18 states to outright ban the practice of conversion therapy. While Florida has no statewide ban, it currently has 21 bans in different cities, counties and municipalities; unfortunately none of those bans are in Central Florida.

“We chose to go countywide instead of municipality by municipality so it all would be blanketed by the ban,” Rollings says, “and the support we have had on this is amazing. We have a list of faith-based groups, churches, elected officials and local groups behind this ban.”

Supporters of the ban will hold a rally at Stonewall Bar in Orlando on Aug. 15 from 5:30- 8:30 p.m. to help build more local support for this issue. The event will feature a collection of guest speakers including survivors of conversion therapy, as well as Exodus International’s former president Alan Chambers and former vice-president of Randy Thomas.

“Having those two at the rally is huge,” says Wilkie. “There are still organizations that came out of that movement and are still practicing, so it is huge that people like that are now speaking out against it and saying ‘We were wrong’ and continue to speak out on our behalf.”

The petition to ban conversion therapy will be presented to the Orange County Commission on Sept. 10. To add your signature, visit ConvertToLove.org.

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